Drinking water tests within safe lead levels

Hannah Grover
Bob Fredriksen, manager of  Water Treatment Plant No. 1 in Farmington, talks about the facility's operations Friday .

FARMINGTON – When the issue of lead-contaminated drinking water entered the public spotlight earlier this year, residents of many areas of the country began to wonder about the quality of their water.

Those questions were sparked by the situation in Flint, Mich., where the tap water became contaminated with lead after the city changed its drinking water source. Farmington officials say the situation here is different and, except for one home, there is no problem with lead in the drinking water.

Exposure to lead in drinking water can lead to various problems, including damage to the nervous and reproductive systems, and kidneys. It can also cause high blood pressure and anemia. The World Health Organization warns that high levels of lead can cause irreversible learning disabilities and behavioral problems in children.

While Flint caught the nation's attention due to its lead-contaminated water, various other cities have had similar issues.

As part of an investigation by the USA Today Network, The Daily Times examined drinking water in Farmington, Aztec and Bloomfield. Every year, the cities release water quality reports that include test results for lead and copper contamination. In 1991, the Environmental Protection Agency published regulations to control lead and copper in drinking water. Cities were required to take action if lead levels were greater than 15 parts per billion in the drinking water.

At that time, Farmington officials began to evaluate the city's water. Because cities in this area are relatively young compared to cities like Flint, the waterlines are not made of lead. However, during the 1970s and 1980s, lead solder was commonly used in plumbing.

A light source reflects on the water in the filter room Friday at Water Treatment Plant No. 1 in Farmington.

David Sypher, the city of Farmington public works director, said in 1992 the city identified 90 houses built during that time period. The city has since been testing the water at those residences. Over time, some of the owners of those 90 houses decided not to test for lead or upgraded their plumbing. Now, the city tests 30 residences every three years. Before the test, residents are asked not to use their water overnight. The tests are conducted in the morning after the water has been sitting in the pipes for several hours to ensure it is at its worst possible state.

In all the samples taken, only Farmington had a sample come back above the action level. In 2014, when the last lead test was done, the water at one house, located on North Cochiti Avenue, tested at 19 parts per billion for lead.

Sypher said the homeowner had options ranging from changing the plumbing or retesting the water to flushing the line before use.

While that house on Cochiti Avenue tested above action level, it is not the only one where lead solder was used. However, over time, officials say deposited minerals have created protective coatings on the pipes’ interiors. Sypher explained that the water in the Farmington system is slightly basic, registering 7.3 or 7.4 on the pH scale. He said if the water were acidic, it could eat away at those mineral deposits on the interior of the pipes.

The city also has safeguards in place to make sure Animas River water, which supplies most of the drinking water in the city, does not have heavy metals when it enters the water treatment plant. That involves not pumping river water during times of high turbidity and using Farmington Lake to settle metals out of the water.

Plant Manager Bob Fredriksen shows the control room Friday at Water Treatment Plant No. 1 in Farmington.

"We are very proud that our water is not even in the same class as Flint, Mich.," Sypher said.

The most recent water quality reports for Aztec and Bloomfield have not had any samples test above action level for lead.

Aztec City Manager Josh Ray said he does not think the city keeps track of which, if any, service lines could have lead in them. He said if a resident has concerns about lead in the plumbing, the city would refer that individual to a certified plumber.

Bloomfield City Manager Eric Strahl said the city engages in periodic testing to ensure its drinking water is safe.

"I don't think we've really got an issue," he said.

Hannah Grover covers Aztec and Bloomfield, as well as general news, for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.